Bat 21 (1988)

Genres - War  |   Sub-Genres - Combat Films, Docudrama, War Adventure  |   Release Date - Oct 21, 1988 (USA)  |   Run Time - 105 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Matthew Doberman

Bat 21 is based on the real-life exploits of Lieutenant Colonel Iceal Hambleton, a high-level desk jockey who's never seen the war upfront -- until he's shot down and forced to see it far closer than he ever wanted. In this way the film, shot on location in Malaysia, is unique among war movies, particularly Vietnam films. We see the horrors of war, not through the jaded eyes of a combat veteran or the innocent view of a trembling young recruit, but through the eyes of an older man who's been part of war for years, but has never really known what that meant. He has managed to be both intimately involved in the war and to have kept his hands free of blood, if only physically. Like him, we start the movie alienated from the dark events that often constituted the war, and through him, we come to know better. Due to the extensive and sensitive nature of his knowledge, Hambleton's real-life retrieval became the largest one-man rescue effort of the Vietnam war -- and highly controversial, given the real and potential losses involved in his safe return. Though Bat 21 packs a real punch, it does not set out to chronicle the violence of Vietnam with the same honest brutality of films like Platoon. Instead, it is a personal movie, a film that tells the story of two men whose fates have become intertwined, Gene Hackman's Hambleton and Danny Glover as the pilot who won't abandon him, and both men excel in their roles. Compared to more expansive, more traditional war films, the personal focus of Bat 21 is unique. The end result is a taut, suspenseful story of two atypical cinematic warriors, a combat story whose relative "smallness" is refreshing.